Pew poll on Muslim attitudes: What polls about US Muslims don’t tell you

The other statistic

The comprehensive survey of over 1,000 Muslim-Americans released this week by the Pew Research Center was supposed to be a harbinger of good news, as evidenced by its title, “Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream“. And in many ways, it has positive things to report: most Muslim Americans buy into American ideals of hard work and opportunity, have many non-Muslim friends, are relatively educated and well off (only 2% are low income), and report being “happy” or “very happy” with their lives.

The survey also showed that Muslim-Americans views towards Israel are in line with other Americans (most believe that Israeli and Palestinian rights can be reconciled) and that they categorically reject extremism among Muslims. “What this survey shows is that Muslim Americans are largely assimilated, happy with their lives and moderate – mostly in contrast to Muslims in western Europe,” said Andrew Kohut, head of the Pew Research Center. “They also reject Islamic extremism to a much greater extent than Muslim populations elsewhere in the world.”

This might be the case, but you wouldn’t know it from reading the headlines covering the study, most of which are focusing on one troubling statistic: 8% of US Muslims – and 15% of US Muslims under 30 – believe that suicide bombings can be often or sometimes justified in the defense of Islam. With an estimate of 2.35 million Muslims in the US, this statistic has predictably caused some degree of alarm over the 140,000 or so Muslims that fall into this troublesome camp. “Jihad in America?” reads one headline, with other similar articles attracting angry comments. “It is a hair-raising number,” admits Radwan Masmoudi, president of the Washington-based Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy. Indeed it is.

But something is missing from this poll that any scientist would understand – a “control.” That is, one needs to ask non-Muslim Americans the same questions about terrorism to see where the answers deviate. Fortunately, one such poll with an identical question was released a few months ago and, though it didn’t result in any headlines, the deviation is remarkable – and unexpected. When asked if “bombing and other attacks intentionally aimed at civilians” are “often or sometimes justified,” 24% of all Americans agreed – three times the 8% of US Muslims who share that view. And scarcely half as many non-Muslims (46%) were found to oppose suicide bombings as all US Muslims in the Pew poll (80%). Similarly, a UK poll last year cited support for suicide bombing among Muslims (10%) and non-Muslims (7%) that is statistically equal. The Pew finding that 47% of US Muslims consider themselves Muslim first – rather than American – needs to be compared to a similar poll that showed 42% of Christians and 62% of white Evangelicals identifying themselves primarily by their religion as opposed to their being American.

Using the alarmist logic that is currently being applied to US Muslims, the numbers would mean 72 million Americans are walking time bombs (or in support of them). Fair? Of course not. But the lack of a “control” demonstrates the inherent flaw in interpreting answers to questions like these – and both Pew researchers and rushed reporters should have known better.

Shahed Amanullah is editor-in-chief of altmuslim.com.